Friday, 17 April 2009

The ‘Golden Era’ of 3D

A popular urban legend has it that at the first ever public screening of L’arrivée du Train, the Lumière brothers’ 60-second film, the audience was so terrified that the approaching train would jump out of the screen that many of them leapt to their feet and promptly exited the building. This seems almost plausible, as the year was 1895 and the cinema experience was brand new. However, many cinema experts dismiss this tale, or at least in part. It’s actually far more plausible that audiences were scared witless by the 1934 remake, which Louis Lumière shot in full 3D - because the train actually was coming out of the screen at them.

In the first half of the 20th century, stereoscopy - the science behind 3D imaging - was still very much experimental. Film releases were restricted to short productions such as the Lumière brothers’ effort, which must go down in history as one of the most effective horror movies of all time. It wasn’t until 1952 that the first feature-length motion picture to use 3D was released. Bwana Devil was based on the real-life story of the Tsavo man-eaters that killed numerous Uganda Railway workers, and promised ‘a lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!’ Critics universally trashed it. One branding it ‘the worst movie in my rather faltering memory’, and claimed that the 3D effects gave him a hangover. Time magazine simply called it a ‘dog’. Despite this, the film sold a lot of seats and set up 3D’s ‘golden era’, which studios hoped would encourage people to turn off their televisions and get back in the theatres.

House of Wax, released in April 1953, was the first time American audiences enjoyed a film with stereophonic sound. The visual 3D aspects were largely gimmicky, and included well-known scenes such as a man playing with a bat and ball, and a host of can-can girls giving it their all. Amazingly, the film’s director, Andre De Toth, was blind in one eye and couldn’t perceive the extra dimension. As the film’s star Vincent Price recalled: “He really was the wrong director for 3D. He’d go to the rushes and say, ‘Why is everybody so excited about this?’ It didn’t mean anything to him.” Price went on to become known as the ‘King of 3D’ after featuring in several other 3D features such as The Mad Magician and Son of Sinbad.

Come the autumn of 1953, the theatrical 3D craze was already dying down. The main cause was the complex equipment required to exhibit 3D movies, as well as the awkward arrangements. Two projectionists were often required to keep prints in sync, and if the reels ever did fall out of line, the picture became virtually unwatchable and gave the audience headaches and eyestrain.

Despite this, 3D did make a comeback at the end of 1953 with the release of MGM’s musical Kiss Me, Kate, which was well received by cinemagoers. This prompted the release of the infamous The French Line, a 3D musical starring Jane Russell. The film was all about sex appeal, and the revealing costumes and risqué lyrics resulted in a release without an MPAA seal of approval. The tagline, ‘it’ll knock both of your eyes out!’, says all you need to know.

One of the last famous Golden Era 3D films was 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, starring Ben Chapman as the rubber-suited Gill-man. This was the only 3D feature of the time that spawned a 3D sequel, Revenge of the Creature, released in February 1955. The sequel brought the ‘golden era’ to a close for good, as exhibitors were still uncomfortable with the expense and effort of showing 3D features and turned to other developments such as Cinemascope as alternatives.

3D films are once again popular in theatres, and their return has reopened the age-old argument, trashy gimmick or effective immersion technique? However, a more pertinent question might be, how long will the craze last this time? It’s impossible to say, but maybe longer than you think. Many esteemed directors such as Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton have already embraced 3D for their upcoming efforts, while James Cameron’s Avatar - his first film in almost 12 years - was filmed in 3D using custom cameras and special effects, and is already the most expensive movie ever made, with a budget breaking the $300 million mark. Advancement of technology has made shooting 3D films more cost-effective and distribution much simpler, as well as eliminating motion sickness and migraines, but technological advancements may also send 3D films to their graves as soon as the ‘next big thing’ in cinema comes along. Until then, be sure to keep a tight hold on your popcorn.

Chris Barraclough

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